- In 2018, while the Arctic continued to see warmer summers and retreating snow cover in general because of rising global temperatures, there was also very heavy snowfall that kept several areas covered in “unusually large amounts of snow” even in late summer, when much of it should have melted.
- In northeast Greenland, one of the regions affected by the excessive snowfall, most animals and plants, including Arctic foxes and migratory shorebirds, failed to reproduce, researchers found.
- While one non-breeding year may not spell doom for Arctic wildlife, frequent extreme weather events like the one in 2018 could make it harder for Arctic species to bounce back and survive, the researchers warn.
Plants and animals in the Arctic are adapted to harsh climatic conditions. But extreme weather events triggered by human-caused climate change are wreaking havoc on Arctic wildlife, a new study has found.
Last year was a case in point. In general, the Arctic continued to see warmer summers and retreating snow cover because of rising global temperatures. But there was also very heavy snowfall that kept vast areas of the Arctic covered in “unusually large amounts of snow,” even in late summer, when much of it should have melted, researchers say. In northeast Greenland, one of the regions affected by the excessive snowfall, most animals and plants failed to reproduce.
These patterns were particularly visible in Zackenberg in northeast Greenland, where researchers have spent the past 20 years extensively monitoring animals and plants across multiple taxa. Usually, by the end of July, much of Zackenberg is usually snowless and buzzing with life. The summer is also when plant growth and animal reproduction usually peak, the researchers say. But in 2018, around 45 percent of the region was still covered in snow during late July, and the researchers noted a nearly complete reproductive failure across the food web.
The team did not observe any Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) cubs and almost no muskox (Ovibos moschatus) calves, for example. Flowers appeared so late in the season that seeds would likely not develop before the frost set in, the researchers write. There were considerably fewer migratory shorebirds in Zackenberg last year, and the few shorebird eggs that hatched did so too late. The chicks were unlikely to have had enough time to get sufficient resources to grow and prepare for migration, the researchers say. The team also found that some shorebirds had starved to death, likely because of the delayed appearance of their arthropod prey. This was something the researchers had never encountered before.
One snow-filled year does not spell doom for Arctic wildlife. But frequent extreme weather events like the one in 2018 could make it harder for Arctic species to bounce back and survive, the researchers warn.
“One non-breeding year is hardly that bad for high-arctic species,” Niels Martin Schmidt, lead author of the study and a senior researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark, said in a statement. “The worrying perspective is that 2018 may offer a peep into the future, where increased climatic variability may push the arctic species to — and potentially beyond — their limits.
“Our study shows that climate change is more than ‘just’ warming, and that ecosystems may be hard hit by currently still rare but extreme events,” he added. “What it also brings out is the unparalleled value of long-term observations of the Arctic. Only by keeping an eye on full arctic ecosystems can we understand the havoc brought by the changing climate.”
Schmidt, N. M., Reneerkens, J., Christensen, J.H., Olesen, M., Roslin, T. (2019) An ecosystem-wide reproductive failure with more snow in the Arctic. PLoS Biol 17(10): e3000392. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3000392